Several preseason tournaments are already under way in the world of men's college basketball. Most people don't start thinking about college basketball until February or March, but the preseason tournaments are often informative guides about who the real contenders and the pretenders are. As far as video hoops go, EA's March Madness 2005 is a pretender. While it borrows some new features from NCAA Football 2005 and includes a revamped play-calling system that is actually fun to use, a broken dynasty mode and choppy online play mar an otherwise good basketball game.
March Madness 2005 has a similar look and feel to its NBA cousin, NBA Live 2005.
On the surface, March Madness 2005 looks and feels very similar to its NBA cousin, NBA Live 2005. The engine is pretty much the same, which means the players move about the court fairly quickly, with a slight tendency to ice skate while changing directions or getting pushed by another player. You also have access to the freestyle juke moves via the right thumbstick, as in the NBA Live series. Assuming you have a good ball handler, the freestyle moves in March Madness work a little too well in shaking off your opponent--a college basketball game ought to place more emphasis on team play than on one-on-one play. The effectiveness of the pro hop move has been toned down, however, just as it was in NBA Live 2005. On the plus side, the new freestyle air features of NBA Live 2005 have been imported into March Madness 2005. This means that when you hit the offensive glass, you can choose from three different buttons to attempt a regular rebound, a tap-in, or a put-back slam. The latter is difficult to pull off, but it's extremely satisfying.
Certain other flaws are also shared with NBA Live 2005--the most annoying of these is the speed at which the computer can recover from its mistakes. All too often, when you get a steal, the computer gets back into transition defense immediately, reducing the number of fast break opportunities you get. When you do get out on the break, the players running on the wings often stop at the three-point line instead of cutting all the way to the basket as they should, which prevents you from getting layups and dunks in transition.
Players also recover much too easily in half-court defense to block shots from behind. When you make a pass behind the defense or juke out a defender, you'll find yourself getting stuffed from behind by a big man. This cuts both ways, as your artificial intelligence teammates can often cover up for your mistakes and swat driving opponents from behind when you get beaten on defense. Overall, the blocked shot numbers in an average game seem far too high. Oddly enough, you'll be fouled quite often while getting out and challenging jump shots. In real life, there should be more shooting fouls incurred on driving layups and dunks and almost none on jump shooters, but this is not the case with the default slider settings of March Madness 2005.
The good news is that the developers have tweaked the play-calling system a bit. The new feature is called "floor general" and it is similar in function to the scripted play calls mapped to the D pad in most basketball games. The floor general system allows for six different quick plays; you tap up on the D pad once to access the first set of three plays, and tap up a second time to reach the second trio of plays. The nice thing about floor general is that if you're ever confused about how the play should proceed once you call it, you can click down on the right thumbstick to bring up icons that pop up on the floor and around your players. These icons show you which players you can pass to, or in which direction you can dribble the ball in order to run the play you've chosen.
Running set plays with the floor-general feature can make scoring a lot easier.
There are numerous sets available to you in the playbook, including a variety of motion sets, the 1-4, and double high post. The nice thing is that each set usually includes several options, so the six quick sets you call from the D pad actually comprise 12 or more different plays. From the 1-4, for example, you can pass from between the circles to the wing; the passer will then cut underneath the basket for a layup, or run to the corner for a three-pointer. Alternatively, you can dribble out to one of the wings, and that player will vacate the spot, run the baseline, and come off a staggered screen on the weak side for an open three-point shot. The plays all work pretty well and are fun to do once you understand how they are supposed to work.
March Madness 2005 has borrowed a couple of features from NCAA Football 2005. One of these is the ranking of "25 toughest places to play." If you're an opposing team heading into a hostile stadium like Kentucky's Rupp Arena, Duke's Cameron Indoor Arena, or Oregon's McArthur Court, you can expect to deal with a shaking camera and a vibrating controller as the home crowd gets raucous and rowdy. If the home team goes on a run or gains momentum, the crowd gets louder and the screen shakes even more violently. If you take control of the game as the visiting team, you can take the crowd out of the game, just like real life. This sounds a lot better on paper than it is in practice, as the feature doesn't seem to be implemented in March Madness as well as it was in NCAA Football 2005. For example, you can't exhort the crowd for more noise if you're the home team, whereas you could do so in NCAA Football 2005.
The other feature that March Madness borrows from NCAA Football 2005 is the modeling of team discipline. Unfortunately, it comes off as a somewhat half-baked implementation once again. In the revamped dynasty mode, you can keep track of important notes on your team via PDA e-mails, just like in NBA Live 2005. You'll receive notices from the team doctor about player injuries, notes from prospective recruits as you scout and woo them over the course of the year, and encouragement and advice from your school's athletic director. You'll also receive notices about player misconduct, which you must deal with lest you attract the attention of the NCAA, who will be swift to levy probation if you can't keep your players under control.